The great Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter's career is winding down. Even if he comes back from his ankle injury and is able to play for a good part of 2013, it is clear that he only has few years left. Jeter has had an interesting career. He is a clear future Hall of Famer who was a very valuable player for a very long time. Jeter's value came from an ability to get on base at a good rate, provide some power, stay healthy and play a key defensive position, even if he was at times one of the weaker defenders at that position. In this regard the numbers speak for themselves. Jeter has a lifetime OBP of .382, has reached base by a hit or a walk more than 4,500 times and has over 800 extra base hits. He has done all this while playing shortstop for more games than all but two players in big league history.
In addition to these numbers, Jeter has also earned a reputation for providing leadership and intangibles, being a smart baseball man and for carrying on the Yankee tradition. These are all very vague concepts. Jeter is almost certainly a smart baseball man, having spent a lifetime working and excelling at the game. He also may be a leader, but that is harder to prove. Carrying on the Yankee tradition has even less of a clear meaning, particularly to people who are not Yankee fans. The debate about whether these traits are real, meaningful, overblown or just plain silly has often obscured Jeter's numbers. Jeter's image as the intangibles and leadership guy has earned him even more affection in New York and a great deal of disdain from many other fans.
Jeter's position as the player with the most magic leadership and intangibles will not last much longer as he is getting old. Fortunately, there is another player ready to take that mantle. That player, ironically, plays for the Yankees top rival, and is Dustin Pedroia. Pedroia, like Jeter is a very good player by the numbers, around whom a narrative has developed that makes some perceive him as better than he actually is. Pedroia is not as good as Jeter was when Jeter was at a similar place in his career, but he is still a very good player. He is not, however, as good as his supporters think, nor does he deserve extra credit for magic intangibles.
The easiest way to understand this to contrast Pedroia with Jeter's teammate, the Yankees star second baseman Robinson Cano. Cano is ten months older, but the two are comparable players. Both are second baseman on high-profile teams who are viewed as good defenders and hitters. Pedroia has won two gold gloves to Robinson's three; and most defensive metrics such as dWAR and various measures of range show the two as fairly comparable. Cano is the slightly more durable player being largely injury free since becoming a regular. Pedroia lost most of 2010 and a bit of 2012 to injury. Pedroia is a much better baserunner with 80 more stolen bases over the course of his career at a much higher rate of success than Cano.
As hitters they are also closely matched. Pedroia's career OBP is a full .021 higher than Cano's, but Cano's career slugging percentage is .046 higher than Pedroia's. Given that, it is not surprising that Pedroia walks more while Cano hits more home runs. The debate over who is the better player is a lively and fun one, as a New Yorker I have my views on the question, but suspect that many in New England would disagree with me.
The narratives around the two players, however, could not be different. Pedroia is almost the prototype of the over-achieving "scrappy" player. He is a 5'8" middle infielder who does the little things well. This ignores that he was also a second round draft choice who played baseball at a top baseball school. Cano, on the other hand is bigger, more athletic and does not project scrappiness at all. Throughout his career Cano has been criticized for his playing style and even called lazy. It is disappointing that these epithets are still used against talented, and hard-working Latino players like Cano, but that has been part of the Cano narrative for years.
Cano's intangibles are almost never mentioned, but an argument can, and probably should, be made for them. Cano handled a starting job in New York during a rough time for his team gracefully and smoothly. He has also transitioned from being a supporting player on a team of stars, to being the best player on an old team last year, and on a team of castoffs this year. There are many reasons why the Yankees are surprising so many people this year, but Cano has been a big part of that, hitting .290 while leading the league in home runs. Cano also starred on a Dominican team that, under a fair amount of pressure to succeed, completely dominated the recently concluded World Baseball Classic.
Pedroia and Cano are both excellent players, but the debate over who is better should not be settled by imaginary, unprovable or tautological concepts like intangibles. If, however, analysts and journalists want to go that way, Cano should get his due. Derek Jeter's numbers and consistency make him one of the greatest players ever. Overhyping leadership and other characteristics have at times overshadowed that and made Jeter hated in many quarters outside New York. It would be unfortunate to see a similar thing happen to Pedroia as well.